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John Irvine

Unintended Consequences

Joe is a guy that never really cared about his health. He is overweight, according to any objective standard, and always attributes this to “bigger muscles” (it isn’t). He dutifully comes in once a year, but admittedly only because of his wife’s insistence. She worries about his lack of exercise, his growing abdominal midsection (“muscle”) and the fact that all he does on weekends is sleep. There is a strong history of heart disease in his family—his father was only a few years older than Joe, when he collapsed at the dinner table and died. Joe always turns down repeated offers for the flu vaccine with the response, “I never get sick,” and shows little interest in his lab results, even though his blood sugar and office blood pressure are always high (“I get nervous at the doctor’s office”) and his “bad” cholesterol has never been even close to normal.

At his last appointment, Joe forcefully slapped a stack of papers on the exam table and seemed agitated. “We had a health screening at work last week,” he explained, “My numbers are out of whack and I need your help.” I wasn’t surprised at the numbers, but his seemingly new interest in his own health had me intrigued until he explained. “I get $50.00 off my health premiums, if my blood pressures are normal and $150.00 for having a physical,” he said. Mystery solved—money supplied by his employer was motivating Joe to get healthy.Continue reading…

Innovation and Competition

Last year I published a piece called “Beyond Innovation and Competition,” questioning the dominance of those values. Economists celebrate innovation and competition as the main source of future growth. Innovation has become the central focus of Internet law and policy. While leading commentators sharply divide on the best way to promote innovation, they routinely elevate its importance. Business writers have celebrated search engines, social networks, and tech startups as model corporations, bringing creative destruction and “disruptive innovation” in their wake. Maximum innovation is the goal, and competition is billed as the best way of achieving it. Players in the vast and dynamic tech marketplace are supposed to constantly strive to innovate in order to attract consumers away from rivals.

In the piece, I explain how both competition and innovation can be as destructive as they are constructive. There are many social values (including privacy, transparency, predictability, and stability), and companies can compete for profits in ways that erode those values. In an era of inequality and hall-of-mirrors stock market valuations, innovations of marginal or negative impact on society at large can be vastly overvalued by a stampede of fickle investors.

The shortcomings of the innovation and competition story also play out in health information technology. Stimulus legislation in 2009 provided many carrots and sticks for doctors to digitize their recordkeeping systems, ranging from bonuses now to reimbursement haircuts later this decade if they fail to implement the technology. Congress structured the incentives to encourage a competitive and innovative marketplace in health information technology. But many doctors are shying away from implementation, in part because they fear that the fast and loose ethics of the market can’t mesh with a medical culture of constant commitment to quality care.Continue reading…

Google + Shines the Light on the Value of Data Portability

By VINCE KURAITIS

It’s understandable that a healthcare delivery system would have a mindset and business objective to keep referrals within its network of care providers. Businesses have a right and an obligation to try to hang on to their customers.

It’s a different issue whether closed or walled garden HIT is an acceptable means toward that end.

Outside of healthcare, we understand and can accept that businesses used closed, proprietary IT as part of their business model. Apple has designed their iPod with an eye toward incompatibility and high hassle factor in not being plug-and-play with other music players and systems.

IMHO, however, healthcare is different. Keep your proprietary business model away from my body and gimme my damn data.

Google+ v. Facebook on Data Portability

We are witnessing an important dynamic begin to play out between FB and Google+. I note a significant difference in mindset and policies toward data portability.

FB seems to have a mindset to maintain customer data within its walled garden as much as possible. For example, when G+ first opened, I remember seeing an early article about how easily to import some of your FB data into G+; hours later I read an article how FB had plugged this leak. Deleting your FB account is difficult — there are articles walking you through the 634 steps you need to go through.

G+ seems to be built on a diametrically opposing mindset. You can download your data. You can export your data and import it into another social networking site. You can easily delete your G+ account and wipe out your data.Continue reading…

Can Blogging Be Harmful to Your Career?

By JOHN HALAMKA

I blog 5 days a week. This is my 935th post. Monday through Wednesday are generally policy and technology topics. Thursday is something personal. Friday is an emerging technology.

Everything I write is personal, unfiltered, and transparent. Readers of my blog know where I am, what I’m doing, and what I’m thinking. They can share my highs and my lows, my triumphs and defeats.

Recently, I had my blog used against me for the first time.

In discussing a critical IT issue, someone questioned my focus and engagement because I had written a post about single malt scotch on June 2 at 3am, recounting an experience I had Memorial Day Weekend in Scotland.

I explained that I write these posts late at night, in a few minutes, while most people are sleeping. They are not a distraction but are a kind of therapy, enabling me to document the highlights of my day.

I realize that it is overly optimistic to believe that everyone I work with will embrace values like civility, equanimity, and a belief that the nice guy can finish first.

If Facebook can be used against college applicants to screen them for bad behavior and if review of web-based scholarly writing can be used by legislators to block executive appointment confirmations, what’s the right way to use social media to minimize personal harm?

Continue reading…

Myths About Medical Malpractice

A few days ago, I found myself involved in a debate over malpractice suits on The Heath Care Blog. One reader on the thread explained why, in his view, we need some type of tort reform: “What drives physicians to practice defensive medicine is the total lack of objectivity, fairness and consistency both across jurisdictions and even within a jurisdiction as to how medical disputes are decided. Juries of lay people who cannot understand the often conflicting scientific claims in these cases can be easily swayed by emotion and sympathy for injured plaintiffs.

“The inclination to practice defensively is especially prevalent in ER’s when the doctor and the patient often don’t know each other and there is time pressure to determine a diagnosis and send the patient on his or her way,” he added. “I’ve heard from plenty of doctors who work in inner city ER’s that even poor people are not shy about suing when there is a bad outcome if they can find a lawyer to take their case which they often can.”

This comment pretty well sums up the conventional wisdom about medical malpractice cases: Juries are not objective, don’t understand the evidence, and tend to sympathize with the patient. Meanwhile, doctors should be wary of those low-income patients in ERs. Americans are litigious by nature and if patients are not entirely happy with the outcome, they’ll jump at an opportunity to turn misfortune into a payday. Poor people, who need the money, are even more likely to try to “score.”

Those are the fictions.Continue reading…

Is Medicare A Good Deal?

Think about everything you will pay to support Medicare: the payroll taxes while you are working, the premiums during retirement, and your share of the income taxes that subsidize the system. Then compare that to the benefits of Medicare insurance, say, from age 65 until the day you die.

Are you likely to come out ahead? That depends in part on how old you are. If you are a typical 85-year-old, for example, you can expect about $55,000 of insurance benefits over and above everything you have been paying into the system. If you’re a typical 25-year-old, however, you will pay an extra $111,000 into the system, over and above any benefits you can expect to receive.

By the way, this is not the sort of calculations you want to try at home on a pocket calculator. It’s too complicated. Fortunately the heavy lifting has already been done by Andrew Rettenmaier and Courtney Collins in a report for the National Center for Policy Analysis and summarized in this chart.

In terms of dollars in and dollars out, Medicare breaks down this way:

  • A typical 85-year-old is going to get back $2.69 in benefits for every dollar paid into the system in the form of premiums and taxes—a good deal by any measure.
  • People turning 65 today don’t do nearly as well — they get back $1.25 for every dollar they pay in.
  • The average worker under age 50 loses under the system — with a 45-year-old getting back only 95 cents on the dollar.
  • That’s better than the deal 25-year-olds get, however; they can expect to get back 75 cents for every dollar they contribute.Continue reading…

Real Reform For Medicare Advantage

Medicare Advantage (MA) is stuck in a cycle in which the government wants to micromanage MA plans and cut their reimbursement to satisfy deficit hawks, while the health plan industry lobbies for exactly the opposite. The result is a negative-sum game, a stalemate that benefits nobody.

It turns out that this stalemate would be remarkably easy to overcome, in a way that makes money for the government, gives seniors a visibly better deal, reinvigorates the Medicare ACO, and entices many more members into MA. Since MA plans are held to quality standards far beyond what Medicare fee-for-service requires (remember, straight Medicare is a payment system, not an insurance plan), I am going to assert that the increasingly popular MA plan option – especially plans with high Star ratings – provides better care coordination for seniors than fee-for-service (FFS). The government recognizes this implicitly by initiating Medicare ACOs. ACOs are supposed to close that care coordination gap in FFS but it does not look like that is going to happen on a broad scale in the near future.

If one accepts the premise that more care coordination is a worthy goal, here’s a better way of addressing that care coordination gap by getting more seniors into MA, rather than by setting up a parallel universe of ACOs…and do it in a way that clearly saves money for the government and seniors.

Start with the recognition that most 64-year-olds are already in an HMO or PPO. Today’s sign-up procedure for Medicare acts as though neither innovation exists. A senior becomes eligible for Medicare and then (in competitive markets) gets deluged with offers to join one or another MA plan, which requires switching out of FFS — a model that, while called “traditional,” is totally unfamiliar to patients coming out of commercial HMOs. These enticements to seniors are quite costly for the health plans, involving brokers, salespeople, advertising etc.

How about a system in which MA becomes an opt-out instead of an opt-in for 65-year-olds, meaning people would automatically start receiving their Medicare benefit through a health plan instead of FFS? As you read what follows, assume that MA would still be totally voluntary and that people who want the old-fashioned FFS can simply opt into it.Continue reading…

Hidden Medication Costs

Always covered by an employer health plan, I had never given a thought to prescription costs – my medications had been covered by moderate copays. This changed when I retired and enrolled in Medicare (and a Medicare Part D plan).

Just prior to retirement, my eyes suddenly began tear and swell so much that it impacted my vision. The eye doctor diagnosed an allergic reaction and prescribed prednisone drops to reduce the swelling and antihistamine drops to combat the reaction. The antihistamine drops required pre-approval by my employer’s PBM, which was granted. Per my employer plan I paid a relatively small copay for each prescription.

Three weeks later, on a follow-up visit, the doctor recommended that I continue the antihistamine drops for the duration of the allergy season. But I was running out and had to refill the prescription. Now I was on Medicare so I checked the cost of the drops on the website of my Part D provider. It was $279. Could this be?? Oh indeed it could — and I had a high deductible and would have to pay all of it!! Of course, if I continued to need the drops, the plan would eventually assume more of the expense – but even then the cost would be high – to the plan, even though not as much would come from my own pocket.Continue reading…

Never Say Never (Events)

By BOB WACHTER

Earlier this month, the National Quality Forum released its revised list of “Serious Reportable Events in Healthcare, 2011,” with four new events added to the list. While the NQF no longer refers to this list as “Never Events,” it doesn’t really matter, since everyone else does. And this shorthand has helped make this list, which will soon mark its tenth anniversary, a dominant force in the patient safety field.

The NQF was founded in 1999 at the recommendation of Al Gore’s Presidential Advisory Commission on healthcare quality. For its founding chair, the organization selected Ken Kizer, a no-nonsense, seasoned physician-administrator who had just done a spectacular job of transforming the VA system from the subject of scathing articles and movies into a model of high-quality healthcare, a veritable star in patient safety galaxy.

Kizer’s original charge at NQF was to develop a Good Housekeeping seal-equivalent for quality measures (“NQF-endorsed measures”). But soon after he arrived, Kizer added another item to the NQF’s wish list: the creation of a list of medical errors and harm that might ultimately be the subject of a nationwide state-based reporting system. As Kizer said at the time,

This is intended to be a list of things that just should not happen in health care today. For example, operating on the wrong body part [or] a mother dying during childbirth. That’s such a rare event today that it’s generally viewed as something that just shouldn’t happen. Now, there’s probably going to be an occasion now and then when it happens and everything was done right, but it’s so infrequent that it means you have to investigate it every time it occurs. So “never” has quotes around it in this case. Now, wrong-site surgery is a different story—that should never happen. There’s no way that you should take off the right leg when you’re supposed to do the left one. So in this case, never really means never.

Unsurprisingly, the items on the list quickly became known as “Never Events.” Twenty-seven of them were announced in 2002, and the list was expanded and revised four years later. (This primer, written by my colleague Sumant Ranji for our patient safety website, AHRQ Patient Safety Network, is the best description of the list and some of its policy implications.)Continue reading…

Hacking Your Heart

implanted pacemaker xray

If they can hack your home computer, your mobile phone, apps, your store, your social networks, your bank account, your gaming system, your medical records, your school records, the government and its records, and pretty much anything anyone sets their mind to – isn’t it is only a matter of time until someone finds a way to hack your heart?

Not through a musical hook or melody that you can’t shake. Or a well timed smile by someone your soul connects with. Or a box of chocolates. Or a poem. People have been penetrating the human heart with those Luddite-ish tools since the beginning of civilization.

I was thinking more about that electronic device your doctor might have implanted into your chest to keep your heart beating. Or the little box stuck in your gut to help you and your pancreas regulate your diabetes.  Or the mini-computer surgically inserted to keep your neurological systems on track.

Hacking the medical miracles put inside people to let them live longer with more normal lives.

While to my limited knowledge nobody has reported a single case and the likelihood is extremely low, it is a real enough concern that the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper about the need to improve security last year.

Continue reading…

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